by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

Beyond the Linotype, into a changed world

The Linotype, with its 19th century technology, ruled as king for many years, while inventors struggled to achieve the next breakthrough with a new technology. 

Publishers, eager to break the ITU’s stranglehold on their composing rooms, poured money into inventions which would permit relatively unskilled workers to replace printers. Most efforts failed miserably. Teletypesetters (known as TTS), which was a system of operating a Linotype with punched paper tape, gained popularity and worked its way into most newspapers by the late 1960’s. 

The advantage to TTS was supposedly that a semi-skilled operator could punch tape and bypass unionized or highly paid workers. Unfortunately, the idea of automating an already automated machine turned out to be inefficient and productivity was low. In most cases, expenses and personnel increased. Printers smugly watched these efforts to bypass them and felt secure. “As long as there is printing, they’ll need printers” was a common saying. 

But printers were in for a painful surprise. Change rolled in on a tide of computers and software. Starting in the late 1960s, gaining momentum year by year, the final breakthrough came ten years later with the perfection of photocomposing machines and computer terminals. Newspapers began scrapping batteries of Linotype machines, replacing them with computer-operated photo-typesetting machines or laser printers. Linotype and TTS operators were replaced by newswriters using video terminals in the newsrooms to write the stories and send them directly to the computer-operated photo-typesetting machines. 

Reporters and editors took over the job of typesetting, bypassing the traditional composing room workers. The newspaper business returned to where it started two centuries earlier, with newswriting and typesetting being done by the same individuals. Printers found their numbers shrinking, their skill levels lowered, and job opportunities vanishing.

By the late 1980s, many newspapers eliminated their entire composing rooms. Others maintained skeleton staffs, performing marginally skilled tasks. Many union workers were covered by “lifetime jobs” and were kept on until retirement—but not replaced. Non-union workers were laid off permanently, without apology.

Adding to the typographer’s demise was the development of computer software which came to be known as “desktop publishing.” Suddenly the capacity to set type and produce professional-looking printing was in the hands of anyone who owned an inexpensive IBM clone computer. Simply by calling up the program on the screen, the novice was presented with a selection of typefaces and type sizes that wasn’t to be matched in even the most modern printing plants. This spelled the end for those printers who still held jobs in commercial printing plants. Customers began bringing in their own typeset material to be put on the press. A secretary could do her own typesetting. Commercial printers began eliminating their composing rooms en masse.

The International Typographical Union, which had been the oldest, the strongest, the most active labor union in the history of the American labor movement, finally threw in the towel. Faced with a drastically shrinking membership, the International officers sought merger with whichever organization would have them (and presumably take best care of the officers). After flirting with the Teamsters Union and the Newspaper Guild, the once great Typographical Union finally became a subsidiary of Communications Workers of America. After 134 years, the International Typographical Union faded into history, and before long, a gossamer memory.

The last Linotype at the San Jose Mercury News. Formerly used to set headlines, the machine was retired to the lobby of the Mercury News, after being chromed and painted red. Merganthaler would have been astounded.

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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
Copyright 1966 and all rights reserved.

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